In the second of a two-part interview, Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow describes how analytics has changed baseball—from Moneyball in 2003 to the last out of the 2017 World Series.
“Whenever people talk baseball,” observed beloved Hall of Famer Willie Stargell, they don’t say, ‘Work ball.’ They say, ‘Play ball.’”
Perhaps. But for people who perform at baseball’s highest levels—the athletes, coaches, scouts, and executives who compete for a living—the stakes are considerably higher. In fact, a major-league umpire doesn’t even say, “Play ball.” Instead, he’ll typically point to the pitcher’s mound at starting time and announce, abruptly, “Let’s go.” The game is a business. And the business is to win.
Fifteen years ago, Michael Lewis, in his book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (W. W. Norton & Company, 2003), described the growing importance of data in the baseball business. That same year, Jeff Luhnow joined the St. Louis Cardinals as the team was starting to embrace the ideas behind Moneyball. In this interview, Luhnow reflects on the course of baseball analytics over the years, and the contributions of the Astros along the way. This is the second interview of a two-part series. The first is for analytics leaders seeking inspiration in the Astros’s transformation. This one is for baseball fans, whose ability to grasp the modern game depends on an understanding of analytics’ growing role.
The Quarterly: Let’s go back to 2003, when you entered baseball with the Cardinals. What was the state of play at that time with respect to data analytics versus traditional scouting?
Jeff Luhnow: Our sport has been consistently the same for decades and, quite frankly, a century. There have been some changes in terms of mound height and some of the rules around the game, but it’s essentially the same. What’s really changed dramatically in the last 30 years is information, and how that information is used to make decisions. This started in the ’50s, when some innovative baseball people started to recognize that the traditional ways of evaluating player performance were not accurate. Branch Rickey wrote an article in Life magazine about the early version of on-base percentage. That continued to evolve and really started to accelerate in the ’90s and going into the turn of the century. Certain teams recognized that there was value in the information and in how they could use the information.
There’s no better example of that than the Oakland Athletics, who were a team that was struggling revenue-wise compared with the big-market teams. They were able to utilize the information to evaluate players in a different way, to capture an edge versus the bigger-market teams. They became one of the more successful teams around the turn of the century and made a lot of playoff appearances, in large part because they were finding undervalued players that they were able to recognize through their use of information and analytics. That was all captured in Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, published in 2003.
It’s interesting. In our industry, you could write a book about someone whose best practices are allowing them to compete in a unique and advantageous way, and yet most of the industry would pretty much ignore that and keep doing things the way they were. One person that didn’t ignore that was Bill DeWitt Jr., the principal owner of the St. Louis Cardinals since 1996. When he saw Michael Lewis’s book, he thought this was an opportunity for the Cardinals, who were a larger-revenue, larger-market team, to capture an edge. In 2003, Bill DeWitt Jr. decided to bring me in to the Cardinals and begin the exploration of how to transform into a modern organization that utilizes information.
And over time, there have been teams like the Boston Red Sox, the St. Louis Cardinals, and the recent Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros that have used information and analytics as one of their competitive weapons and have been successful in not only reaching the playoffs but also actually achieving championship status. That was one of the criticisms about Oakland. They could get to the playoffs, but the analytic approach didn’t help them ever win in the playoffs. But that changed when the Red Sox and the Cardinals started to win the World Series and the industry knew that they had a strong analytic bent. And obviously, in recent years, it’s been even more so with the Cubs and the Astros. Teams have always looked to those teams that succeed, that win championships. What did they do that we can do in the future?
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